ISRO former chief K. Radhakrishnan (Nature)

Nature Names ISRO chief Radhakrishnan, robot maker Radhika Nagpal among top 10 global scientists in 2014

ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan has been chosen in the top ten scientists of the world in 2014 by prestigious Nature journal, while European scientist Andrea Accomazzo, who is behind the Rosetta comet landing is also named in the list.

Others in the list include Suzanne Topalian, cancer combatant, Radhika Nagpal, a robot maker, Sheik Humarr Khan, the Ebola doctor, David Spergel, a cosmic sceptic, Maryam Mirzakhani, a surface explorer, Pete Frates, the Ice-bucket challenger, Masayo Takahashi, a stem-cell tester, and Sjors Scheres, a structure solver.

“Radhakrishnan knew the odds were against him when India’s Mangalyaan space probe closed in on Mars this year. As head of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), he was well aware that half of all attempts to reach Mars have ended in failure,” said Nature journali citing ISRO chief’s challenge to undertake successfully the Mars Orbital Mission.

When Mangalyaan entered successfully into Mars orbit on 24 September, India joined the elite group of nations with the ambition and technical capability to explore the Solar System, it noted.

Radhakrishnan, in his 43 years as an engineer and manager at the ISRO, took up diverse projects from developing remote-sensing satellites to setting up India’s tsunami-warning system. The Mars mission was a gamble. “The Mars mission was a slightly more joyous occasion,” he says, while playing down his own role. “I was like a conductor of an orchestra,” he told Nature.

Intrestingly, for the first time Nature has named two Indians in the list of achievers and Radhika Nagpal, a robot maker, who led an engineering research team at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts to achieve a milestone in biology-inspired robotics, taking cue from ants, bees and termites.

Harvard scientist Radhika Nagpal with her kilobots (Photo: Nature; Reflection Films)

Harvard scientist Radhika Nagpal with her kilobots (Photo: Nature; Reflection Films)

Nagpal’s group devised a swarm of 1,024 very simple ‘Kilobots’ of few centimetres wide and tall, moved by shuffling about on three spindly legs and working together, an unimaginable feat, according Alcherio Martinoli, a roboticist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Nagpal’s approach to achieve swarm behaviour among robots “is, to me, extremely powerful and something other people should follow”, he said.

Nagpal who once hated biology has been upbeat about the Nature works. “Looking at biology makes me think differently about computer science,” she says.

One comment

  1. The NYT editorial is a hirlobry argued, bombastic, and ill-informed piece of demagoguery.While some of the criticism may be valid, it is squarely focused on liberal arts graduate studies. As many pointed out, CS is an example of a field with many interdisciplinary studies. In TCS I would point to the flourishing areas at the interface of Theory/Machine Learning/Statistics, the results on embeddings of topological spaces for algorithms, Bioinformatics, and threshold phenomena and Statistical Physics, as four obvious examples where the supposed “compartamentalization into obsolete departments” did not impede research — at least not at the universities I am familiar with.Clearly, on the whole US universities have been doing an exceptionally good job. That is why graduate students are coming here in large numbers, and other countries are imitating the American model of higher education.PhD dissertations in the humanities are important for two reasons1. They contain the equivalent of experimental data: obscure sources, hard to find manuscripts, archival data, and copious examples of analysis of these data supporting the claims of the dissertation.2. Unlike theorems, few dissertations in the humanities offer irrefutable conclusions.Rather, the author has to argue and defend her point of view. Persuasive writing is an integral part of the work.It used to be the case that the research was further validated by being published by some university press. This was made financially viable by de facto permanent subscriptions of the monographs of major university presses by university libraries. Cuts in library budgets (mostly driven by escalating cost of periodicals and data bases) broke the financial model, and humanities departments are at a loss. Administrators find it easy to deny tenure to faculty with no books, and results are not widely disseminated.There are remedies less stringent than dismantling the university to solve this particular problem–on-line publications of dissertations is just one of them.Getting back to the problem of supporting interdisciplinary research, many universities have had institutional structures that are doing just that. I am familiar with the University of Chicago “Committees” (e.g on Social Thought, History of Science, etc.) that have been around since the 20s, and are credited with much superb interdisciplinary work. There are numerous “Centers” for particular interdisciplinary areas (from “Cognitive and Social Neuroscience” to “Italian Opera Studies”) as well as interdisciplinary Institutes, including a Computation Institute, and the Franke Institute for Humanities.Hardly the insular picture of the NYT article.Finally, I am bothered by singling out a specific dissertation topic, (how Scotus does references) as an “obviously bad” idea. It may well be, but this is a far from obvious conclusion, given only the topic. I ran out of time much before I ran out of objections.

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